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Back Syrian peace-plan, not military force, say bishops

by Madeleine Davies

Click to enlarge

Death scene: a United Nations observer takes pictures on Monday of bodies of people whom anti-government protesters say were killed by government security forces in Houla last Friday REUTERS

Death scene: a United Nations observer takes pictures on Monday of bodies of people whom anti-government protesters say were killed by government security forces in Houla last Friday REUTERS

MILITARY force is not the solution to the conflict in Syria, two bishops have warned, despite the massacre of 108 civilians, including 49 children, in Houla, a town near Homs.

The killings, last Friday, have prompted the UN-Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, to announce that a “tipping point” has been reached. “The Syrian people do not want the future to be one of bloodshed and division,” he said on Tuesday. “Yet the killings continue, and the abuses are still with us today.”

On Sunday, the UN Security Council condemned the massacre “in the strongest possible terms”, and demanded that the Syrian government immediately pull back heavy weapons and troops from population centres. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said that the killings might amount to crimes against humanity. Unconfirmed reports suggest that pro-government shabiha paramilitary groups were largely responsible

“Unfortunately, these allegations are consistent with other incidents documented by my office, the international Commission of Inquiry on Syria and other human-rights organisations,” Ms Pillay said.

The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has accused the Syrian government of “systematically attacking its own people” He warned that the inaction of the international comunity “seems to have encouraged the Syrian authorities in their brutal suppression on their citizens”.

On Thursday of last week, a UN human-rights inquiry reported that most of the “gross human-rights violations” in the country were committed by the Syrian army and security services’ cracking down on opposition.

The Syrian regime has denied responsibility for the killings, which it condemned as a “terrorist mas­sacre” on Sunday. A spokesman for the Syrian Foreign Ministry, Jihad Makdissi, said that the Syrian government was the victim of a “tsunami of lies”.

On Saturday, the head of the UN Supervision Mission in Syria, General Robert Mood, said that the circum­stances “are still unclear”.

The Syrian National Council, the country’s main opposition alliance, called on Syrians to “intensify revolutionary activities with total civil disobedience and the escalation of demonstrations”. It has called on the international community to “provide the means of self-defence to the Syrian people”.

In a meeting with the Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, on Tuesday, Mr Annan said that his six-point peace plan, put forward in March, could not succeed without “bold steps” to stop the violence.

On Tuesday, the Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Stephen Platten, said that “further military intervention in yet another theatre of war is not the best way forward”, but the Government must take a “very strong stance” within the interna­tional community. The trials of war criminals from previous conflicts proved, he said, that “such disgraceful and terrorising and tragic behaviour cannot be something that the international community either condones or colludes with”.

The Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Rt Revd Peter Price, backed the six-point plan, “but it must be implemented and the UN will need to strengthen its presence in Syria”. He suggested that the Russian Orthodox Church could play a part in exerting pressure on the Russian government, one of Syria’s main allies, to enable “more concerted action” by the Security Council.

Christian minorities in Syria “regrettably but understandably sided with the Syrian regime”, he said. Both the Government and Christians in the West “need to encourage Syrian opposition groups to respect all human rights in the event of the achievement of a new government”.

The Syrian-born director of the Awareness Foundation in London, the Revd Nadim Nassar, warned that military intervention would “plunge [Syria] into a deeper ground of violence and bloodshed”. The solution, he believes, is to force the regime and its opponents to begin talks outside Syria, on “neutral” ground. The six-point plan was fundamentally flawed, he said, because it attached preconditions to dialogue.

Many Christians were forming political opinions based on their fear that radical Islam will replace the regime, he said, an outcome he regards as “possible but not probable”.

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